Denma-cho Prison

伝馬町牢屋敷
Denma-chō Rōyashiki
Denma-chō Prison

Denma-cho Prison & Execution Ground
Denma-cho Prison & Execution Ground

Alternatively written 傳馬町牢屋敷 Denma-chō (old style), and often referred to as  小伝馬町 Kodenma-chō after the local train station name, Denma-chō Prison and Execution Ground was located near Nihonbashi in the outskirts of old Edo. It’s estimated that during its 200 year history somewhere between 100,000 – 200,000 people were executed here. The facility was in use from 1613 – 1875 and it was the largest of the prisons in Edo. The famous samurai doctor, Takano Chōei, was sentenced to 5 years in the commoner’s section here for criticizing the Tokugawa shōgunate in a paper he wrote. Chōshū Domain’s Yoshida Shōin, teacher and all around twat extraordinaire, was sentenced here and eventually executed by beheading[i]. While Denma-chō Prison had a section for commoners, it primarily housed high ranking officials (retainers of daimyo, direct retainers of the shōgun, physicians, and other criminals of samurai status). As far as Edo’s prisons and execution grounds went, this was the nice one. It also housed female inmates in an area called the 揚屋 agariya[ii]. Because of the amount of high ranking inmates, it was said that your level of hell depended on how much money you had. I don’t know if that means the judges and guards were taking bribes or not. But certainly, in the Edo Period, your social status might have afforded you slightly better accommodations and treatment.

Prisoners arriving at the gate of Denma-cho Prison
Prisoners arriving at the gate of Denma-cho Prison
Gate of Jisshi Park
Gate of Jisshi Park

But don’t think the samurai and female prisoners had it too good here. The buildings were windowless so there was no ventilation during the hot and humid summers. There was no sunlight. Food was given twice a day (thrice a day for women), usually just brown rice and miso soup. The public latrine was located within the prison grounds, and with about 500 prisoners at a time, it apparently stank to high hell. The close quarters meant that disease was rampant, and the physicians who were called to the site hated visiting the place so they did half-ass checkups on the inmates. As a result, it was common for inmates to dying of disease – even those who weren’t condemned to death. Executions were performed in full view of the inmates and carcasses were exposed for days at the perimeter, which meant the smell of rotting human flesh was constant. Torture was a regular policy for certain types of prisoners. Little effort was made to conduct such activities in private, so screams of pain were just a normal part of the background noise.

Incarceration at Denma-cho prison
Incarceration at Denma-cho prison
Dai-Anraku Temple is built on the killing floor to appease the spirits of executed
Dai-Anraku Temple is built on the killing floor to appease the spirits of executed
This stone is supposedly from the prison's well.  The well would have been used for drinking water, but also for the gruesome task of washing decapitated heads before display.
This stone is supposedly from the prison’s well.
The well would have been used for drinking water, but also for the gruesome task of washing decapitated heads before display.

The main executioner was the shōgun’s hereditary 様斬 tameshigiri sword tester 山田浅右衛門 Yamada Asaemon. As such, new swords were tested on corpses and living targets – naturally in plain sight of the inmates. The main form of execution at Denma-chō was beheading, but crucifixions and some other creative methods were employed from time to time. A large bronze bell was rung whenever an execution took place to mark the occasion with a little Buddhist solemnity and – I can’t help but feel – a little festivity. Everybody likes bells, right?

The bell. It was located outside of the prison in the Edo Period, but it was moved here when Daianraku-ji was built on the premises.
The bell.
It was located outside of the prison in the Edo Period,
but it was moved here when Daianraku-ji was established on the premises in 1882.

The facility was shut down by the Meiji Government in 1871 – they had continued to use it for 8 years, mind you – in an effort to appear “modern” as they sought to renegotiate the so-called “unequal treaties” that the shōgunate had agreed to. Beheadings, crucifixion and other “barbaric” methods of dispatching condemned criminals were also abolished. In 1875, Ichigaya Prison replaced Denma-chō and a new era of the Japanese penile system began[iii].

I don't know if this Buddha stood here in the Edo Period, but if it did, it would have witnessed over 100,000 executions.
I don’t know if this Buddha stood here in the Edo Period, but if it did, it would have witnessed over 100,000 executions.
More remains of the execution ground.
More remains of the execution ground.

Little remains of the site today, but the few bits and pieces that are still extant can be seen at  大安楽寺 Daianraku-ji Daianraku Temple and 十思公園  Jisshi Kōen Jisshi Park. The actual site encompassed those locations as well  十思小学校  Jisshi Shōgakkō Jisshi Elementary School. Recent archaeological findings revealed a little about the layout of the facility, but actually shed more light on Edo Period sewage and plumbing. The well and much of the piping were still intact after all these years. Sexy!

A little shrine to Benzaiten, one of the 7 gods of good luck.
A little shrine to Benzaiten, one of the 7 gods of good luck.
Benzaiten likes water.
Benzaiten likes water.

The bell that sounded each execution still remains and some stone foundations and memorials can be seen. A stone memorial states that Daianraku-ji is actually the site of the killing floor. The temple was built to care for the spirits of those who were executed or who died here and as such, it’s not the most popular temple in Tōkyō. The name of the temple means Great Comfort and Ease. I guess it’s the Buddhist version of requiescat in pace[iv].

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Enjoy some of the left over pictures that didn’t fit into the article:

img_334850_13795921_2
Edo Period piping discovered during excavation of the area.
IMG_1023
At the entrance of the park, there’s a small pond beside the Yoshida Shoin monument.
A drinking fountain and a foundation to something that is no longer there.  Probably not Edo Era, but I took a picture anyways.
A drinking fountain and a foundation to something that is no longer there.
Probably not Edo Era, but I took a picture anyways.
Excavations of the foundations
Excavations of the foundations
When you exit Kodenma-cho Station, this stone monument tells you what the area used to be.
When you exit Kodenma-cho Station, this stone monument tells you what the area used to be.
I can't read this. Can you?
I can’t read this. Can you?
The so-called "Demise of Yoshida Shoin" monument.
The so-called “Demise of Yoshida Shoin” monument.

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[i] I’m not a fan of Yoshida Shōin or the ideas he espoused, but his shrine, 松陰神社 Shōin Jinja, in Tōkyō’s Setagaya Ward supposedly has a 維新祭 Ishin Matsuri Restoration Festival that sounds kind of interesting. By the way, Shōin wasn’t executed at Denma-chō. He was killed at Kozukappara in Minami Senju.

[ii] For those in the know, agariya was also an Edo Period word for a brothel, but I don’t think the women were being pimped out at Denma-chō. Male and female inmates were segregated – I think that’s all is meant by this word.

[iii] Ooops, I mean penal. Penal system. Sorry.

[iv] Latin for “rest in peace” – R.I.P.

12 thoughts on “Denma-cho Prison

  1. Nice post! I live right near Suzugamori in Shinagawa-ku – I think the other main execution ground in Edo. Kind of an eery spot, though like Denma-cho, at least has a proper temple and memorial stones to appease the executed.

    1. I agree Suzugamori is eerie!

      Actually, tomorrow’s article is about Suzugamori.
      Maybe you’ll be able to shed some light on the rent issue that I mention.

  2. I’ve seen Suzugamori. But never this place. It doesn’t look as creepy as Suzugamori.
    Maybe that’s a good thing.

    1. I’m really digging the execution ground stuff! You never really hear much about it.

      Thanks!

    2. Yeah, it’s not very creepy. You’d never know it’s sordid past if no one told you – and you didn’t read the signs.

      I don’t recall seeing a single English sign, so it’s totally off the radar if you can’t read Japanese.

  3. I love your blog Marky. Exactly how I like my history and linguistics. I’m writing on the off chance that you don’t know of the wonderful manga Samurai Executioner. It’s by the brilliant team of Koike and Kojima. It’s about the 3rd Yamada Asaemon with lots of poetic license of course. Anyway No. 1 starts of in Tenmacho (as the English translation writes it) Prison. These manga are beautifully illustrated and are well worth a look. Lots of history of the day to day culture too. And so cheap if you can read Japanese. That’s one reason I’m learning ha ha. I’ll save myself thousands on English translations. All the best. Robbie.

    1. Thanks for the comment and kind words. I haven’t read that manga (I don’t really read much manga at all), but I have heard of it. Actually, I think I came across references to it a few times when writing this series!

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